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What are the best things to do with kids in New York at Christmas? There are so many options, given how many new experiences there are here every year.  There are lots of luxurious activities for grown-ups, of course. And lots of great places for Christmas dinner. But what about the littles? From ice skating in Central Park to meeting Santa at Macys, we’re sharing the merriest NYC Christmas holiday activities for kids and families #NYCKids #NYCWithKids

the best activities for kids and families in NYC at Christmas holiday time

Most of our ideas don’t involve shopping – although those opportunities will certainly be all around you if you choose to stop. When we compiled our list of the best activities to do with kids in NYC at Christmas, we kept our focus on joyful and marvelous experiences to share in, many of which are possible only in New York. Parents and little ones alike are highly likely to be merry. Which is really what a luxurious holiday is all about, right?

Ice skating in Central Park to meeting Santa at Macys, the 23 merriest NYC Christmas activities for kids and families #NYCKids #NYCWithKids

From ice skating in Central Park to meeting Santa at Macys, the 23 merriest NYC Christmas activities for kids and families.

midtown classics

Let’s start with the iconic holiday experiences of midtown Manhattan. They’re the stuff of movies, books, photos and dreams, and you shouldn’t miss them. These are the classics for kids activities in NYC during the Christmas holiday season.

1. the tree at rockefeller plaza

The magnificent tree at Rockefeller Center is always illuminated on the Wednesday of the week after Thanksgiving. So although you’ll see it if you’re in town for Thanksgiving weekend, the real fun starts once the lights are illuminated. It’s going to be really crowded around the tree, and all along the Channel Gardens leading to the plaza from Fifth Avenue. But you have to see it. Go at dawn if you don’t like crowds. The Tree will remain lit and can be viewed through the first week of January.

2. the skating rink at bryant park

There are a few outdoor skating options in Manhattan at Christmas. You could go to the rink at Rockefeller Plaza at the base of the tree. But it’s small, and crowded, and the lines can get really long. You could also go to Wollman Rink in Central Park, or to the Standard Hotel on the West Side.

But we vote for the rink at Bryant Park. It’s right in the middle of midtown, and it’s large enough to make the skating actually fun. It’s surrounded by restaurants and a holiday village for shopping. And it’s really, really pretty.

3. the new york public library

The two iconic lion statues that guard the entrance to the New York Public Library’s main midtown branch — Patience and Fortitude — are adorned each year with holiday wreathes. Inside, you’ll find a stunning library. Head to the children’s room to see the original Winnie the Pooh. And choose from the wide array of books for a perfect impromptu story time.

4. santaland at macy’s

The uber-Santa visit of all time is still the one at Macy’s Herald Square. The winter wonderland display makes the time in line pass quickly, and the luxurious decor of the room where the little ones see Santa is the stuff of dreams. The photos are wonderful keepsakes, too.

5. the laser light show at Saks

To complement the tree at Rockefeller Plaza, neighboring department store Saks Fifth Avenue has upped its game in recent years. The store windows are fun to see. And the light show projected on the front of the store is pretty spectacular. There’s music to accompany it, and the show repeats every 15 minutes throughout the day and evening.

6. the radio city christmas show

This holiday classic is great fun, and for some it’s an annual ritual. Radio City is gorgeous, the Rockettes are incredibly talented, and the Living Nativity is definitely one of those “only in New York” spectacles that kids and their parents will love. Yep, those are real live camels.

7. holiday tea at the plaza hotel’s palm court

Tea at the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel is one of those rites of passage that make a trip to the city so much fun. At holiday time, you can multiply that by three or four (or so). Inspired by nearby Central Park and its lush greenery, the setting incorporates potted plants, ceiling-high palm trees, trellis detailing, and furnishings with cane accents. The room’s signature feature is a soaring stained-glass dome reminiscent of the original built in 1907. The dress code is “smart casual.”

8. the luxury store windows

In addition to Saks Fifth Avenue, the best store windows can be found at Tiffany’s and Bergdorf Goodman (we are SO SAD that Lord & Taylor and Barneys are dearly departed). We will have to see if Nordstrom’s New York or Neiman Marcus New York get in on this game. If you have extra time after seeing Tiffany’s and Bergdorf’s, stroll north on Madison Avenue, and you’ll pass all of the premiere luxury stores, many of which have whimsical and beautiful holiday window displays, too.

The merriest NYC Christmas activities for kids and families. #NYCKids #NYCWithKids

uptown culture

After you’ve had your fill of the spectacles in midtown, head further uptown for experiences that are more refined, a bit less frenzied, and culturally enriching for the little ones and the older ones in your group.

9. the metropolitan museum

Even the smallest ones in your family will marvel at the Met’s magnificent Christmas tree. It’s in the Medieval Sculpture Hall —a 20-foot blue spruce—and there’s an 18th-century Neopolitan nativity scene displayed beneath it. This baroque crèche features not only an authentic Neapolitan Nativity, but also scenes from a Mediterranean harbor town. The entire tableau is set in front of an 18th-century choir screen from a Spanish cathedral. You can watch the tree-lighting every day at 4:30 p.m.. On the weekend, there are additional tree-lightings at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

10. alvin ailey at city center

The Alvin Ailey Dance Company takes up residence at City Center each holiday season for five weeks only, starting on the first Wednesday after Thanksgiving, and going through New Year’s Eve. Kids and parents will love seeing the new works performed by the company, along with classics choreographed by Alvin Ailey himself. Consider attending one of the Family Matinee Series performances. They take place every Saturday at 2pm, and are followed by question-and-answer sessions with Ailey’s acclaimed dancers. Whatever you do, don’t miss Revelations.

11. the big apple circus

The Big Apple Circus is a one-ring circus that is perfectly-scaled for younger kids (the performances are also geared to be kid-length and family friendly). It’s located under a brightly-colored tent in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center. Performances begin in November and continue through the end of January. The popcorn there is exceptional.

12. george balanchine’s the nutcracker at lincoln center

Many New York families make attending a performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet an annual event, and with good reason. It’s a truly dazzling experience. The Lincoln Center complex is awe-inspiring, and the David H. Koch theater is beautiful (be sure to go out on the balcony on the second floor). Even more importantly, though, the performers are superb. Kids love seeing dancers close to their own ages on stage, and the special effects are thrilling.

13. holidays with the new york philharmonic

At the David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, “Holidays with the New York Philharmonic” concerts include performances of “Winter Wonderland,” “O Tannenbaum,” “White Christmas,” and more. There’s  a carol sing-along and at some performances, there’s a celebrity reading of The Night Before Christmas. 

14. the magic flute at the metropolitan opera

The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is a family-friendly, abridged, English-language holiday production of Mozart’s fairy tale. The production is directed by Julie Taymor and runs for under two hours.


merriest NYC Christmas activities for kids and families #NYCKids #NYCWithKids

The merriest NYC Christmas activities for kids and families.

magic in the bronx

Keep heading north of the city, and you’ll find some serious family-friendly magic in the Bronx.

15. the holiday train show at the new york botanical garden

In the twinkling glow of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, model trains zip through a display of more than 175 New York landmarks. Each is re-created with bark, leaves, and other natural materials, and the tiny details are incredible to see. The Holiday Train Show runs from mid-November through the third week of January each year. Taking a Metro North train from Grand Central is an easy and quick way to travel to the New York Botanical Garden. The stop at the garden is just steps away from the main entrance.

16. the bronx zoo

We love the Bronx Zoo anytime of year. At holiday time, it’s a splendid place to roam for families with kids. Indoors, visit the Butterfly Garden and the Congo Gorilla Forest. Then head outside for the Winter Wonderland experiences of seeing the bears, big cats and seals enjoying the cold weather.

elsewhere in manhattan

Meanwhile, across the city there are many other activities that are excellent family adventures.

17. an independent bookstore

New York is still home to several fantastic independent book stores, and the holiday season is a fine time to stop in and visit one (or more). Our personal favorite is Rizzoli, on Broadway in the Flatiron District. Other options? McNally Jackson, Kitchen Arts & Letters (for those who love cookbooks), Books are Magic in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn or The Lit.Bar in the Bronx.

18. the holiday nostalgia ride on the vintage subway fleet

The New York Transit Museum is located at Grand Central Station, and a visit there is always a fun outing. But during the holidays, you and your family can go step further into the history of mass transit in New York by taking a holiday nostalgia ride on a vintage subway car. The trips are scheduled for Sundays throughout the holiday season.

19. the central park zoo

Families often overlook this intimate and family-friendly zoo. But it should be a core part of the inventory of wonderful family experiences to be had in the city. The Central Park Zoo is a lovely space and a perfect short visit for families with little ones that’s not far from the hotels of midtown. The 6.5-acre zoo is located at the edge of Central Park along Fifth Avenue in the 60’s.  It showcases animals from tropical, temperate, and polar zones around the world. The penguins are adorable, and the the sea lion pool in the center courtyard is always a big hit.

20. the intrepid

An active-duty aircraft carrier during World War 2, the Intrepid is now docked on a pier on the West Side of Manhattan. The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum is filled with wonders, including a World War 2 submarine; a Concorde jet; and a Space Shuttle. In a word, it’s awesome.

21. the oculus

The shopping center-transit hub-architectural wonder, The Oculus, is a stunning place to visit anytime of year. At the holidays, every day there will be live musical performances. It’s a space unlike any other, and definitely worth the trip.

22. one world trade observatory

Located on floors 100-102 of One World Trade Center, the observatory at One World Trade Center provides a panoramic view of the city. The seasonal Winter ONEderland experience allows families to visit Santa, take selfies in front of a giant snow globe, and stop for a hot chocolate or a sit-down meal. The high point is the walk through the Glacier Cave.

23. a religious ceremony or volunteer activity of your choice

There are many ways to connect spiritually during the holiday season, even in New York! You could attend the lighting of the world’s largest Hanukkah menorah at the edge of Central Park (right across the street from the Plaza Hotel). Or attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. You could head to Harlem and attend a service at Abyssinian Baptist Church. You could volunteer as a family at a food pantry. There are beautiful opportunities to share a spiritual moment with your family in the city – don’t miss your chance to capture that luminous part of New York City at the holidays.

24. “winter glow” at the flatiron public plaza

A little elf told us about a new family-friendly festival at the Flatiron Public Plaza. “Winter Glow” is a festive three-week series featuring interactive, pop-up programming for all ages. A showpiece of the event is the new public art installation, Control No Control, a large-scale LED cube that reacts to touch, so kids and their loved ones create patterns and sounds together. Join the festive tree lighting ceremony at Madison Square Park, or dance at the silent disco.

the best things to do with kids in New York at Christmas

From ice skating in Central Park to meeting Santa at Macys, that’s our list of the 23 merriest NYC Christmas activities for kids and families #NYCKids #NYCWithKids. Whatever you decide to do, we hope you have a great trip and happy holiday.

Pamela Thomas-Graham

Pamela Thomas-Graham is the Founder & CEO of Dandelion Chandelier. She serves on the boards of several tech companies, and was previously a senior executive in finance, media and fashion, and a partner at McKinsey & Co.